(Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

Democrats lost to President Trump in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio in 2016. Tuesday, they were delighted to see that the 2016 losses might have been an aberration. Consider that Democrats held on to all four of the Senate seats, flipped the governorship in Wisconsin and Michigan, and held the governorship in Pennsylvania. The only loss was the Ohio governorship. (More about that in a moment.)

Democrats in these states ran on health care, education and other bread-and-butter issues. They didn’t have to adopt Trump’s anti-immigrant claptrap, nor did they change their views on social issues. In other words, they had a clear message, appealed to a wide audience and were able to put together an electoral majority of college-educated whites, younger voters, women and nonwhites — President Barack Obama’s winning coalition. Perhaps the problem wasn’t the Democratic message of economic opportunity and fighting for the little guy but a presidential candidate in 2016 who just didn’t connect with voters and a campaign that dropped the ball. Lesson: You can keep the message, not give in to xenophobia, and still win in the Rust Belt and upper Midwest with a down-to-earth candidate. 

Democrats should also look at where they fell short in a very winnable governor’s race — Richard Cordray in Ohio. Corday is a progressive darling but couldn’t maximize the strength of the Democratic coalition. You could see why moderates in the suburbs might shy away, concerned about electing a “tax and spend” progressive, while young and nonwhite voters might not find him all that compelling. Lesson: Be really wary of nominating a Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) type who is going to scare moderates and fail to generate excitement with nonwhite voters, who must turn out in large numbers to ensure a win.

Meanwhile, Democrats also flipped governorships in New Mexico, Maine, Kansas and Nevada. Three of the winners were women, who have reaffirmed their importance to the party’s electoral future. None of these states would have been won, most likely, by a fire-breathing progressive. In these states, competent moderates, especially in Nevada and Kansas, were able to effectively paint the Republican as extreme. (In the case of Maine, the outgoing governor, a Trumpish clown, likely encouraged voters to give the other party a turn.) Lesson: Women are some of the Democrats’ best candidates, and in states where being “middle of the road” is no insult, it’s a good idea to go with a moderate.

As for the House, here again moderates did extremely well. Third Way, which promotes centrist Democrats, put out an election eve memo on House candidates, which laid out the results of an election eve poll that “asked Democrats and Independents to think about the Democratic candidate in their district and asked if they would have preferred a more liberal, moderate, or conservative option.” The survey found: “A plurality (37%) would not have preferred anyone different. Thirty-five percent would have preferred a more moderate (21%) or conservative option (14%). Just 16% said they would have preferred a more liberal candidate.”

Third Way also makes an interesting point: Although some national Democrats rushed to join Sanders in support of single-payer health care, only one Democrat in a competitive House race actually campaigned on it. However, “Republicans, by contrast, ran ads attacking Democrats in over two dozen competitive districts on this issue, including against Democrats who never actually supported it. That’s how potent they found it: they lied about their Democratic opponents backing the plan to score political points. And many Democrats who had been pressured into supporting single payer in the primary quickly retreated from it in the general election.” Moreover, the survey found, “70% of Democrats and Independents want the Democratic Party to ‘appeal to a broad range of voters, including people who may have voted for Trump in 2016.’ By contrast, just 17% of Democrats and Independents want the Party to move farther to the left in an effort to generate enthusiasm and participation among progressives and liberals.”

Sure enough, after the votes were counted, Blue Dog PAC (another centrist Democratic group) welcomed a slew of new members to the House: including Anthony Brindisi (New York’s 22nd District), Max Rose (New York’s 11th District), Mikie Sherrill (New Jersey’s 11th District), Abigail Spanberger (Virginia’s 7th District) and Jeff Van Drew (New Jersey’s 2nd). Democrats also ran — with great success — likable moderates in suburban districts against vulnerable Republicans. Lesson: Moderates don’t have to be boring, and outside of deep-blue enclaves, it’s entirely logical to avoid overreaching.

Two final, big lessons remain for Democrats. First, exciting progressives Andrew Gillum, Stacey Abrams and Beto O’Rourke came up short, although they ran remarkably competitive races. (Abrams does have an outside shot at a runoff.) Democrats need to continue to expand the electorate, engaging and registering young people but most critically, Hispanic voters. Making such voters into reliable, regular voters should be the party’s top priority. Second, losses in the Senate should remind Democrats that not only are they not going to remove Trump by impeachment but also there is less incentive than ever for Republicans to break with him. Those who won owe their victories to him. The “moderate Republican” is essentially extinct. Democrats will need to beat a fully Trumpized GOP to complete their quest to repair our democracy and oust a dangerous, divisive president.

Read more:

Republicans pay the price for racism and xenophobia

Here comes Trump’s blame machine

The first five things the Democrats should do with their House majority

America steps back from the abyss

Democrats take House as voters give Trump a big thumbs down

Texas, I see now that you love me and despise this Beto, and I embrace you

The telling measure of Trump’s weakness